Having a sense that you don’t belong is profoundly isolating. For many of us, our childhood and particularly our teenage years may have been dominated by a need to fit in, to work out and conform to the rules of whichever group we were trying to belong to. The cost of not doing so was social exclusion, the fear of which provides the stifling conformity of adolescence.
Ideally, adulthood eases the anxieties of social interaction, as we experience the boundaries between ourselves and others as less threatening, and differences can be more easily tolerated. However, social life still brims with opportunities to feel like you don’t know the rules. Social media can amplify this feeling. Twitter and Facebook can seem like an ever present group of rule-makers screaming ‘on Wednesdays we wear pink’, when it’s the middle of the week and you’re wearing blue. (If you haven’t seen it already, watch Mean Girls (2004) to make sense of this allusion).
Fear of getting it wrong can lead us to be vigilant and watchful, changing our colours in different social settings so as not to risk causing offence or being exposed as different. This can be particularly acute if we’ve grown up to experience conflict or hostility when expressing a view that doesn’t conform to the group or groups to which we notionally belong. The most extreme form of this occurs in groups or indeed whole societies based on religious dogma or rigid political ideology; these are founded on a notion of a pre-existing truth rather than socially constructed meaning, of heavily policed ‘rules’ rather than social negotiation. In more liberal societies, the consequences of dissidence from prescribed norms are less severe, but the individual psychological burden of trying to belong while experiencing ourselves as ourselves can be heavy.
Chances are, the more attentive we become to the rules of the group, the more socially anxious or socially rigid we become. The more socially anxious we are, the more we may avoid social situations and feel like we don’t belong; the more socially rigid, the more narrow our social worlds and views become. To disrupt this cycle requires us, of course, to pay less not more attention to the rules of the group and to develop a more robust sense of self. But staying true of oneself is neither an easy nor self-evident task, as different societies and cultures have profoundly different understandings of what it means to have ‘a self’. Some place more emphasis on collective ways of being, that the self only comes into being in relation to the other; others have profoundly individualised definitions of the self, that the self is realised in competition with the other; many societies move between the two.
I was brought up in a religious faith which prioritised the needs of others over the needs of the self; indeed, one of the first misdemeanours I learned to feel ashamed of was ‘selfishness’. When I left this faith behind, I found the collective identity of a class in which to define myself, with increasing dissonance as the signs of my belonging to one class or another became more tenuous. As a counsellor, I am still drawn to offering support to others, but much of that work is connected with helping others, and myself, to develop a less anxious or rigid sense of self. Counselling might include helping a client to overcome social anxiety, to recover from being brought up with fixed and oppressive rules or being in a relationship with a controlling partner. The work often focuses on ways of belonging, of overcoming loneliness or social isolation but its emphasis is also on the often complex relationship between developing a sense of self and feeling safe to connect with others; of not losing oneself in the other or the group. It’s about learning that wearing blue, or green, or yellow on Wednesdays is just fine.